‘Signal’, a new framework for understanding brand success, prioritises the metrics that really matter ‘out there’ in the real world and in the boardroom, says Ian Murray, co-founder of Burst Your Bubble.

When we set up Burst Your Bubble last summer, Andrew and I set ourselves a big challenge. We’d been researching the marketing worldview for years. All the evidence we’d gathered, including our ‘Empathy Delusion’ and ‘Aspiration Window’ whitepapers, showed that the marketing industry often exhibits a tenuous grasp of what makes ordinary people tick and how brands grow and take their place ‘in culture’.

So, we’d diagnosed the problem. Now it was time to put our money where our mouth was and come up with some practical frameworks and tools to close the gap. That’s what Burst Your Bubble is about. And that’s where ‘Signal’ comes in: our new framework for understanding brand success.

Signal draws on years of learning from our whitepapers on worldviews and from our award-winning research into media signalling. The idea is to strip away the vanity metrics and myths that bog down many brand and advertising research frameworks and focus on the stuff that really matters ‘out there’ in the real world and in the boardroom.

Real world principles

We didn’t start with a blank sheet of paper. Signal is informed by key principles from the best thought leaders on brands and advertising.

1) Brands are built collectively, not individually.

‘It is not about what I know about the brand, it’s about what I know other people know.’

One of the most debilitating aspects of the marketing worldview is its atomised view of ‘culture’ and its obsession with hyper-individualistic modes of behaviour and communication. So, in creating ‘Signal’ we were strongly influenced by the idea that ‘common knowledge’ is key to brand success. Informed by thinking from a wide range of sources including Kevin Simler, Mark Earls and Robert Cialdini, Signal focuses on tapping into people’s social intelligence and identifies social norms as a crucial factor in building brand success.

2) Quality and reliability matter

Evolutionary biology and psychology tell us that signals of fitness and honesty are the basic building blocks of decision-making in the animal kingdom (including humans!). But this is often neglected in the marketing narrative of how brands succeed. Too many marketers dismiss quality and reliability as rational hygiene factors. Meanwhile, out in the real world, and in the boardroom, people are making decisions based on these vital signals whether marketers like it or not.

Building on Rory Sutherland's '5th rule of alchemy', and our own award-winning work on media signalling, we put ‘fitness’ and the importance of mass public promises at the heart of our framework of brand success.

3) A unique and holistic view of mental availability

Over the last decade or so Byron Sharp and Jenni Romaniuk have created the most influential work on the science of ‘How Brands Grow’: i.e. by building physical and mental availability and associations with relevant category entry points. But as the growth of brand purpose shows, marketers are continually broadening the definition of what constitutes brand relevance.

So, Signal delivers all the ‘classic’ brand growth KPIs (i.e. mental market share, mental penetration, network size, share of mind). But it broadens the concept of mental availability to integrate the measurement of category entry points and moral entry points.

Directly informed by the research in our whitepapers (e.g. 'The Empathy Delusion' and 'Aspiration Window') moral entry points provide a real-world measure of a) the capacity of brands to signal alignment with the values and worldviews of diverse communities and segments of society and b) the contribution this makes to brand success.

Too often the conversation on how brands succeed is limited by zero-sum thinking, polarised debates and the pressure to pick a team. We believe Signal is unique in its holistic approach to exploring how brands can grow sales and take their place in culture.

4) Everything Communicates  

Signal challenges the incredibly persistent idea that ad and brand effectiveness depend on explicit and personally relevant messaging. As Paul Feldwick reminds us, everything a brand does implicitly communicates something. And it is impossible not to communicate. There are infinite ways that brand meaning can be created. They can’t all be measured. Signal is about breaking the marketing industry’s ‘illusion of control’ and finding an accessible way to summarise the totality of a brand and how people make sense of it in real life.

We distil all of this into a straightforward framework focused on measuring four key signals: Fitness, Fame, Category Entry Points and Moral Entry Points

Signals chart

Holistic thinking works.

We have been championing the power of holistic brand thinking since we published our first ‘Gut Instinct’ white paper back in 2018. Now, via Signal, we are proving that it works. We are applying Signal (qualitatively and quantitatively) to inspire creativity and inform effectiveness across the planning cycle. Ranging across mass consumer categories (UK retail and grocery), B2B professional services (international law), technology start-ups, and proving the untapped value of ‘traditional’ media, focussing on signalling frees marketers from received wisdom and creative straightjackets that mandate ‘how advertising works’.

Compare your signal strength to competitors - market leaders have strongest signal

Graph showing signal strength correlates strongly with market share

‘Nobody knows anything.’

(William Goldman, ‘Adventures in the Screen Trade’)

William Goldman became an Oscar-winning screenwriter by ‘writing scripts he believed in, not the flavour of the day.’ According to ‘Variety’ magazine, he also wrote the best line in the history of Hollywood. But when Goldman wrote ‘nobody knows anything’ it wasn’t part of a famous movie script. He was writing about the inherently unpredictable business of creativity and making commercially successful movies.

Goldman’s point was far more nuanced than it first appears. Of course, he was not saying that people in the film business know nothing about making movies. The film industry is brimming with talent and innovative technical expertise. But all this knowledge doesn’t necessarily get anyone in Hollywood closer to knowing what a hit looks like. The history of movie-making is littered with sure things that bombed at the box office. Goldman’s point is that immersion in the esoteric craft of movie-making may actually make it more difficult to see things the way ‘normal’ people do.

‘Nobody knows anything’ could easily have been written about the marketing and advertising business. There are myriad routes to building fame, fitness, and mental availability (category and moral). Like any creative endeavour, brand success (and failure) is a messy jumble of intended and unintended consequences.

At the start of my career, I was taught that ‘brand response is more important than ad response’. It is still my guiding principle. We can never say, definitively, what makes successful advertising. But we do know what success looks like. By focusing on outcomes and these ‘real world’ fundamentals, Signal provides a straightforward and accessible new framework for thinking about brand success.